With An Open Governor's Seat, Would-Be Candidates Flood The Field

Jun 9, 2015

An open seat for governor doesn’t come around very often. On the rare occasion it does, politicians have a tough time resisting the temptation to compete for it. 

It’s only been 24 hours since Gov. Peter Shumlin announced he wouldn’t seek reelection in 2016. But a crowded field is already jockeying for position, echoing what has suddenly become the most well-worn phrase in Vermont politics:

“I am seriously considering a run for governor.”

“I’m considering the possibility, yes.”

“I would certainly be excited to consider a run for governor again.”

Those words came from the mouths of House Speaker Shap Smith, former state auditor Randy Brock and former state senator Matt Dunne, respectively. They’re hardly alone in pondering a gubernatorial run. 

Since Gov. Shumlin announced on Monday that his third term will be his last, would-be candidates from across the ideological spectrum are now weighing bids to replace him.

The headliner thus far is Rep. Peter Welch, the five-term Democratic congressman who cruised to an easy reelection last fall. Welch hadn’t been in the gubernatorial mix until Monday. But his chief of staff says that in light of Shumlin’s announcement, Welch, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1990, is weighing his options.

Welch may be the only Democratic candidate with the heft to avoid a primary. The last time there was an open seat for governor, five Democrats competed for the nomination.

On the Republican side, all eyes are on Lt. Gov. Phil Scott. The clear favorite among party stalwarts, Scott has the most name recognition of any GOP contender. He says he’ll take the next couple weeks to figure it all out.

“I’ll know when it’s right for me and when it’s right for Vermont, and then make an announcement one way or the other,” Scott says.

The headliner thus far is Rep. Peter Welch, the five-term Democratic congressman who cruised to an easy reelection last fall.

Smith, the highest-profile Democrat next to Welch, also says a final decision about his political future will come in weeks, not months.

“I also want to talk to friends and Vermonters to see whether they think it’s a good idea for me to run for governor,” Smith says.

Other Republicans pondering bids include Scott Milne, who nearly defeated Shumlin last November, and Dan Feliciano, a Libertarian-turned-Republican who took about 4 percent of the popular vote in the 2014 general election.

Morgan Daybell, vice chairman of the Vermont Progressive Party, says his organization is recruiting gubernatorial candidates, and plans to play a serious role in the 2016 gubernatorial cycle. 

On the Republican side, all eyes are on Lt. Gov. Phil Scott. The clear favorite among party stalwarts, Scott has the most name recognition of any GOP contender.

“We do not have any names to share yet, but since the beginning of the session it has been clear to us that we need to have someone in that race,” Daybell says.

Veteran Statehouse lobbyist Kevin Ellis says campaigns for statewide office are not to be taken lightly. And for people like Phil Scott, Shap Smith and Matt Dunne, the sacrifice to personal and professional lives is substantial.

“So you’ve got to have a seriously honest conversation with friends and family and the … top 20 donors about whether you think you can win. And they’re having those conversations right now,” Ellis says. 

While “consideration” may be in full supply these days, it hasn’t quite risen to full-fledged campaigning. Potential candidates are likely courting donors and political power brokers, but platforms are still for the most part limited to aspirational statements about the future of the state.

While "consideration" may be in full supply these days, it hasn't quite risen to full-fledged campaigning.

Dunne said he wanted foremost Monday to celebrate the accomplishments of Peter Shumlin. He said the governor’s decision does create an interesting opportunity.

“When there’s an open seat, there’s an opportunity to think a little differently about the future of our state, and where we can go,” said Dunne, who finished fourth in a five-way Democratic  primary for governor in 2010.

Of Shumlin’s tenure in office, Smith said “I think he’s done a great job setting the foundation.

“And I would continue to work to make sure we’re an incredibly prosperous state, and it’s a place people want to live,” Smith said.

Even the general contours of the 2016 cycle aren’t close to taking shape. If Welch runs for governor, calculations would necessarily shift. And the names Vermonters are talking about in 12 months may bear no resemblance to the political roster pundits are discussing now.